Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Book Review: A Girl's Life in Virginia Before the War by Letitia M. Burwell
I love reading memoirs written about the Civil War era, you get a real feeling what people thought about their world and the events that they witnessed.
"A Girl's Life in Virginia Before the War" by Letitia M. Burwell was first published in 1895 when the Lost Cause and Moonlight and Magnolias myth was becoming firmly established in American culture. Following the end of the war the market was overwhelmed by books and regimental histories written by Union veterans which firmly established the Union narrative and celebrated the deeds of President Lincoln, and the Union generals such as Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan. Also being produced were memoirs written by black soldiers and former slaves who detailed the horrors of slavery. By 1876 the mood of the nation began to change, with the end of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crowe in the South, and a devastating financial depression many in the North began to express weariness with the constant reminders of the horrors of the war and the evils of slavery.
Into this void Southern authors began to produce a new genre of literature that promoted the Southern way of life. War veterans penned narratives extolling the virtues of Confederate leaders such as Lee and the bravery of the gallant Southern solider as he battled against the evil Yankees whose mercenary (Irish, German, black) soldiers laid waste to the Southern fields and cities. Southern women writers also contributed their voice and penned nostalgic memoirs about life on the plantation, such as Burwell's offering.
In the opening Letitia Burwell makes it quite clear that she is writing this book so that her nieces will not be ashamed by their slave holding ancestors. Burwell's fears that her nieces are being poisoned by wicked Yankee authors who are once again plotting against the South by writing, in Burwell's worldview, exaggerated stories about the evils of slavery. What the reader gets is a fascinating view of Southern culture from a very sheltered and pampered Southern belle. Her views on the benefits of slavery and plantation life is fascinating--though in our modern eyes highly offensive. Many readers will be offended by her use of slave dialect and how she presented slaves as nothing more than adult sized children, but it sheds light on how many 19th Southerners (male and female) viewed African Americans and the institution of slavery.
Another fascinating aspect of Letitia Burwell's memoir is her depiction of Virginia plantation culture on the eve of the Civil War. Burwell was born into an elite and old Virginia family and her memoir reads like a Who's Who of Virginia plantation society. For all its grandeur, luxury, and romance this was a society that was already several generations past its glory days. In fact, Burwell's elders were more concerned about the achievements of their ancestors and how things had been better back in the day, then with the pressing needs of the future. This was a society that was on the verge of collapse with practically everyone burying their heads in the sand while clinging desperately onto their slaves. This house of cards was already on the verge of destruction when the Civil War came to knock it over. Ironically, Letitia Burwell ends up like her grandmother who gathered the youngsters around her and extolled the virtues of the past and decried the advancements of the modern age.
"A Girl's Life in Virginia Before the War" is a fascinating time capsule and an excellent example of the growing literary genre that would eventually produce the works of Thomas Dixon, Jr. and "Gone With the Wind."